Thursday, July 24, 2008

TELEVISION: They've got that global warming thing down cold

Penn & Teller's Bull----!
10-10:30 p.m. Thursday, Showtime

I've seen lots of things on Penn & Teller's Bull----!, television's only investigative-journalism program run by comic magicians: Hidden-camera pranks where yuppie fools blather on about designer water that actually came from a garden hose. New Age health nuts allowing mollusks to crawl around on their faces to soak up the health benefits of slug slime. Naked people floating around in a zero-gravity chamber for a show on NASA. I don't actually know what that one was supposed to prove, but Penn & Teller share my first rule of journalism, that naked is always good.

But one thing I haven't seen is grim; the show is just too much fun for that. So when Thursday's episode on environmentalism opened with a morose-looking Penn Jillette waving a magazine as he recited one ecotastrophe after another -- drought in Africa, flooding in Pakistan and Japan, snowless winters in New England and Northern Europe -- I snapped to attention. ''It says right here in Time magazine -- the weather's gone nuts and we humans are to blame!'' Teller wailed. ``We have bleeped up the environment and now we're going to pay for it!''

Yeah, that global warming is pretty bad. You know, Al Gore says -- oops, never mind. Turns out Penn's not reading from the infamous Time cover story of 2006 on global warming, the one headlined BE WORRIED. BE VERY WORRIED. No, this Time is from 1974, and the headline is, ANOTHER ICE AGE? And all those violent paroxysms of nature are the pernicious work of global cooling.

Yes, back in the days of disco, the news media echoed with predictions of the world's imminent demise from ice rather than fire. Newsweek warned that temperatures had already dropped ''a sixth of the way toward the Ice Age average.'' By 1985, Life declared, ``air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the earth by one half.''

A MAJOR COOLING WIDELY ACCEPTED TO BE INEVITABLE, agreed The New York Times, adding in an editorial: ''Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.'' To be fair, this was nothing new at The Times. It had been predicting the world was on the verge of turning into a Popsicle since at least 1895 -- GEOLOGISTS THINK THE WORLD MAY BE FROZEN UP AGAIN, a headline said back then. Perhaps the editors figured that if they printed the story often enough, they were bound to get it right, if only because of the law of averages.

I sometimes find myself longing for the good old days of the Ice Age scare, because at least back then, dissent was possible. When Newsweek in 1975 proposed fighting off those inexorable glaciers by ''melting the arctic cap by covering it with black soot or diverting arctic rivers,'' it had the grace to concede that some scientists worried just a teensy bit that these solutions ``might create problems far greater than they resolve.''

These days, deviating from the orthodoxy on global warming -- not just questioning whether it exists, but how much of it is due to human activity, or if the results might be a little less ruinous than the Climate Cassandras predict -- is almost enough to get you thrown in jail. And I mean that literally. James Hansen, the former Gore science advisor who's been one of the foremost doomsayers on global warming, recently said that oil company executives who argue against him ``should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.''

Consider it a certainty that the Climate Police will lock up Penn & Teller after Thursday's show. Not only does it feature interviews with some scientists who aren't totally sold on the idea that the Earth is toast, it whispers an even more inconvenient truth: A lot of the scariest global-warming tales are told by people who stand to make a buck by scaring you.

At one end of the scale is a Santa Fe therapist who treats patients for what she calls ''eco-anxiety'' by giving them what she calls ''river rocks'' -- actually, it's gravel picked up from her driveway -- to remind them that ''you do come from Earth and you are connected.'' (The most scandalous thing about this ''treatment'' is that it works: ''Whenever I'm by a rock, holding it, I feel grounded,'' explains one grateful patient.)

At the other is Al Gore, who's made a post-political career out of warning that we're on the brink of ''epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and killer heat waves.'' A couple of years ago, Gore suffered some minor embarrassment when a Tennessee think-tank revealed that his 20-room Nashville mansion uses 17 times the electricity of the average American home. Unabashed, Gore explained that he was ''offsetting'' his electric gluttony by buying carbon credits -- that it, putting money into green projects, would save as much energy as his home wasted.

Looking a little more closely into it, Bull----! points out that Gore was actually purchasing those carbon credits from . . . himself. He did it by investing money in his own company Generation Investment Management, which buys stocks in companies that make green technology -- technology that Gore is constantly lobbying governments to adopt or mandate. ''So Al makes money when people buy carbon credits through his company,'' says a Gore critic. It's not only good to be green, but profitable, too.

I'm not surprised if you're surprised that Gore might have a financial interest in screaming about the end of the world. Reporters who fall asleep chanting the mantra follow the money have been heinously lax in practicing it on the global warming story.

Last November, when NBC insisted that every single program on the network that week would have a green theme, nobody seemed to notice that the network was in effect running a massive product-placement ad for its corporate parent General Electric. GE has invested massive amounts of money in solar panels, wind power and other so-called clean-energy technologies for which there will be virtually no consumer demand unless Congress passes laws requiring them.

But practically no reporters were interested in that story -- certainly not those at NBC News, which also participated in Green Week by inserting stories into its shows. When I asked network anchor Brian Williams if this wasn't corporate manipulation of his newscast, he shook his head vigorously. ''Not at all,'' he insisted. ''I've got no problems with it. It's not any different than The New York Times editorial board sitting down and saying the newspaper is going to do a series of stories on some particular subject.'' Maybe, if The New York Times were owned by, say, Halliburton, and the board of directors ordered up a series on, say, the need to invade Iraq. But I don't have time to argue about it right now. I'm pretty sure I hear the Climate Police at my door.

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